Bleak view of a coalition of extremes

A Tragedy of Errors
The government and misgovernment of Northern Ireland
By Kenneth Bloomfield
Liverpool University Press, £25.25

After the fanfare surrounding the setting up of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly this month, this memoir offers a more gloomy analysis of the chances that a government led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness can prosper.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield is probably Northern Ireland’s most experienced civil servant, learning his trade in the old Stormont parliament, before working for a pantheon of Labour and Conservative Northern Ireland secretaries. Bloomfield was head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service from 1984-91. More recently, he had the unenviable task of being Northern Ireland’s first Victims Commissioner. His choice of title – A Tragedy of Errors: the government and misgovernment of Northern Ireland – gives some idea of his stance. His objective, he says, is to “identify critical moments in which the descent into violence might have been averted”.

Bloomfield catalogues the mistakes of British governments. He is also critical of Dublin and nationalist Ireland in sometimes not understanding the Unionist mindset. He observes, only half in jest, that if George W. Bush had been born in Northern Ireland, he may very well have been a member of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists.

Like a good civil servant, he has a fine eye for detail. He recalls when Hansard reported a debate in the House of Commons referring to an important speech by Sean Lemass, then Irish prime minister or Taoiseach. When one Northern Ireland MP referred to “the Tralee speech by the Taoiseach” he found the parliamentary note takers had recorded this as “the Tralee speech in a tea-shop.” Bloomfield sees this as another example of how modern Ireland was little understood by the establishment in London.

The book is a reminder that there were many initiatives – conventions, forums and assemblies – all aimed at finding a political settlement long before the IRA decided to take up the ballot box alongside the bullet. Bloomfield wonders, for example, whether the Heath government would not have given a better hearing to former Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner’s reforms in 1971 before collapsing the Stormont parliament if it had known how long this period of “direct rule” was going to last.

His concluding comments about the current situation are particularly arresting. Unlike many officials who believe the presence of the two extremes in government is the guarantee that, this time, power-sharing can be made to work, Bloomfield is doubtful. He recalls a rugby match in Dublin sitting close to David Trimble and Seamus Mallon – the first and deputy first ministers in the original devolved administration following the Good Friday agreement. “They seemed to me like inimical Siamese twins, cruelly joined together and perpetually uncomfortable.” He adds: “If moderate centre parties could not demonstrate some sense of common purpose and growing understanding, one could hardly expect the most bitter of political enemies to work constructively together.”

The test of success will be whether Northern Ireland can heal its inter-community divisions, which he says have widened not narrowed since the onset of the peace process. The system of involuntary coalition – where all the main parties are in the executive with no opposition as such – he believes will hamper effective government.

He recalls how, on the very evening the last executive was suspended, Mr McGuinness, then education minister, was able to scrap the system of academic selection for post-primary school children – the so-called Eleven-Plus test – without any reference to cabinet colleagues or the assembly. “This was the act of a commissar rather than a minister.” The rules have since been changed so that three ministers can now block any initiative, largely prompted by a DUP desire to prevent a similar act of high-handedness. But he asks: “If controversial action can be blocked by the absence of cross-community support, may there not be a real and ever-present risk of deadlock as between factions deeply suspicious of each other?”

Bloomfield offers no view as to whether Mr Paisley has really changed his spots, but adds: “My own judgment is that, over the course of more than 30 years, Paisley’s influence has been malign, and a major impediment to any convincing and enduring rapprochement between the communities.”

In a wry observation, he asks whether, in the long run, unionists “would not enjoy a more dignified position as a community within a united Ireland”. But then he recalls the political culture of “cynicism and greed” in the south. He also dreads what he calls the “nightmare prospect” of Sinn Féin in government in Dublin too – which polls suggest could become a reality after next week’s Irish general election.

On the prospects for Northern Ireland, he concludes that what is really needed is “better men, framing better policies” rather than the coalition of extremes currently on offer.

The writer is the FT’s Ireland correspondent

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